The high threshold implied in the word “invention” explains why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us may fumble through even a simple response.
Sometimes we can be surprised by a word that pulls us up short. We didn’t expect to see it on the page. Such a moment came to me as an undergraduate dutifully slogging through the words of the important Roman rhetorician and statesman, Cicero. He noted that creating a message to be presented to others was an act of “invention.”
That’s it. For 50 years I’ve puzzled over that term. You might suggest that I ‘get a life,’ but my sudden annoyance was triggered by this less-than-obvious word summing up a communicator’s obligations. I wasn’t ready for a term that seemed to scale up a process that seemed like it should be less onerous. Bach or Edison might have been the creators of “inventions.” And give Tesla and Berliner their due. But surely writers and speakers can get by with a lot less. It seemed like overreach.
Bear with me a moment. There’s a useful lesson here.
Most of us think of language and its various forms are already “out there.” I was certain that good lines of argument or amplification came from prior forms that were adapted, borrowed, or recycled from other sources. And there is a sense in which this is true. But the Latin “inventio” implies more. The idea sets the bar higher. Indeed, the original term sits there on the page as something of a taunt: it begs us to believe that an effective speaker or writer is on the hook for engaging in a full-fledged act of creation. It turns a communicator into an originator rather than a user, an active agent rather than a pliable imitator. After all, invention was presented not as a minor idea, but the term that would represent the most important of the traditional five “canons” of rhetoric, along with arrangement, style, delivery and memory.
Are creative word-workers really in the business of innovating their ways through the world, like so many garage tinkerers who have given us gadgets we didn’t know we needed? To be sure, inventio is sometimes translated from the Latin to mean “discovery,” or the process of “devising” a “stratagem” for a suitable verbal response. It turns out that Latin doesn’t a have rich vocabulary in this area. Even so.
Lest you think we’ve drifted into the realm of counting angels on the head of pin, the challenge Cicero laid down is real. We confront acts of invention every time we sit in front of an empty sheet of paper or a blank screen. Some kind of situation requires an appropriate response. It might be a death in the family, a note to explain why we can’t attend an event, or—at the other end of the scale—an explanation of a guiding principle in American foreign policy. Cicero’s point is that the best response to the question “what can I say?” should be more than a paste-up of another’s ideas.
Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us.
This explains a lot. The high-engagement threshold of invention accounts for why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us fumble through a simple response that we wish we could retrieve. The hard truth is that off-the shelf comments usually don’t work very well. Ideas meant for another time and audience often sit dead on the page.
The lesson coming from this single word is hard for my students to grasp. To be a writer means committing to an innovator’s level of engagement. Good writing is work. Knock-offs of written or spoken prose are easily revealed as the counterfeits they are. Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us: a task unsuited to the intellectually lazy.